Developing Student Learning Outcomes
What are being called “student learning outcomes” do not represent a completely new direction in teaching and learning but rather a continuation of a trend that began with “learning objectives.”
That change was from a primary focus on the subject matter or body of knowledge to a concentration on the skills or application derived from the teaching of the subject matter. Verbs emphasizing what students would be able to do or know after the learning process was complete replaced the rather vague verbs “comprehend” and “learn.” Learning objectives had to be measurable tasks or skills. the purpose was to redirect the energies of the teaching and learning process towards its effects on the students. this makes education more responsive to the needs of students and to the sectors of society that depend upon the successful results of higher education.
This emphasis on results, which is sometimes reflected in the term “accountability,” has not been replaced by a new fad. Instead, the trend has continued in the same direction. Student learning outcomes are like learning objectives in their focus on the measurable results of student learning. they differ in scope, however. the main difference between student learning outcomes and learning objectives is that learning objectives are discrete, individual tasks or skills that must be accomplished before the larger, broader goals of the course can be achieved. The overarching goals of the course, however, are the student learning outcomes.
The other change between learning objectives and student learning outcomes is that the new accreditation standards now require colleges to collect data on the success of students meeting those overarching goals. Colleges are then charged with analyzing the data and making changes that will result in more effective student learning
SLOs are the measurable skills or accomplishments which embody the overarching goals of a course. They represent the most important learning that takes place in a course. It may be helpful to think of them this way: when your students leave your course at the end of the semester, you want them to be in firm possession of certain abilities or knowledge, and you want them to retain those abilities or that knowledge. those are the student learning outcomes.
While many courses in the past have had upwards of 15 or more learning objectives (some science courses have over a hundred), student learning outcomes organize these skills into broader outcomes.
Because student learning outcomes need to be assessed in a more organized, concrete way than the old learning objectives, and because student learning outcomes are broader than learning objectives, it makes sense for a course to have a limited number of student learning outcomes. Ideally, each course should have between one and three SLOs.
If you have questions as you are revising student learning outcomes for your courses or programs, please contact your division’s representatives on the curriculum and/or SLO committees.
Assessing Student Learning Outcomes
Setting goals for courses and programs is not a new idea to faculty; it is an integral part of teaching. And assessing student learning also is not a new concept; teachers know that they have to give grades, and to do that they have to assess students.
In the day-to-day flurry of teaching, however, it is possible for the connection between a teacher’s goals and the assessment of student learning to lose some clarity. e Student Learning Outcomes Assessment mandate refocuses all of us on the strong links between statements of goals (SLOs) and their assessment. Here is a concise definition of assessment that explains those connections:
Assessment is an ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving student learning. It involves making our expectations explicit and public; setting appropriate criteria and high standards for learning quality; systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance. When it is embedded effectively within larger institutional systems, assessment can help us focus our collective attention, examine our assumptions, and create a shared academic culture dedicated to assuring and improving the quality of higher education (Thomas A. Angelo, AAHE Bulletin, November1995, p. 7).
The WASC accreditation standard that has launched this project does not micromanage the assessment process. Instead, it leaves to faculty the decisions that will determine how useful the assessment process will be in improving teaching and learning. In other words, faculty members decide how they will assess the SLOs.
Any tool that measures the degree to which students have met a learning outcome qualities as assessment. Such tools include skills performances or demonstrations, portfolios, productions (essay, oral presentation, visual arti-fact, speech), surveys, quizzes, and tests. Most outcomes can be measured in a variety of ways. See Appendix C for descriptions of various types of assessment tools and their uses.
It is also important, though, to differentiate between SLO assessment and grading. While the skills needed to attain the student learning outcome(s) for a course can and should inform the grade a student receives in a course, there are often more factors involved in a student’s grade than skill achievement. Often, missing or inconsistent work over the course of a term can significantly impact a student’s grade, even if he or she has reached the SLO for a course.
A student’s final grade in a course should not be the SLO assessment measure. Instead, an assignment in the course that effectively measures the achievement of the SLO should be the assessment tool. Rather than using a student’s grade on that assignment as the measure of success, criteria should be developed (either through a rubric or through setting a raw score as the threshold) for successfully meeting the SLO.
In order to help organize the assessment process, it is helpful to have a written plan (called an assessment plan) for how and when each SLO will be assessed. When developing an assessment plan, it is best to involve as many relevant faculty as possible, including full-time and part-time faculty. For assessment plan forms and sample assessment plans, please see Appendix D.
Developing Assessment Plans for Courses
Here are some steps that will help you develop an assessment plan for a course:
First, check your SLOs:
  • How many are there? If there are more than three, they likely aren’t true SLOs – they may be objec-tives that were just moved into the SLO area. You should revise them into SLOs before creating an assessment plan.
  • Are the SLOs overarching (“big picture” learning for the course) or are they smaller objectives (things learned in just one chapter, for instance)? If they are not overarching, you should revise the SLOs before creating an assessment plan.
  • Is the student learning described in the SLO observable and measurable? If not, you should revise the SLOs to make them observable and measureable before creating an assessment plan.
Next, decide on an appropriate assessment tool. Consider:
  • What is the SLO asking the students to do?
    • Identify a fact?
    • Perform a skill?
    • Analyze a complex phenomenon?
    • Solve a problem?
    • Explain a concept?
    • Create a learning product?
    • Prepare a performance?
    • Apply skills or knowledge to real-world situations?
    • Evaluate options and select appropriate resources or tools?
  • What types of assignments or activities will allow students to demonstrate the SLO(see Appendix C for more information about choosing an assessment tool)?
    • What tool will you select?
      • Objective exams?
      • Essay exams?
      • Out-of-class formal essays?
      • Skill demonstrations?
      • Surveys?
      • Portfolios?
      • Performances?
      • Oral Presentations?
  • What criteria will you use to measure success or failure to meet the SLO?
    • Rubric (see Appendix E for tips on how to develop a rubric)?
    • Raw score?
  • What are the expected results? (How many students do you expect to successfully meet the SLO?)
Then, decide how and when you will do the assessment:
  • How often will you assess this course?
    • Will it be on a three-year cycle? A four-year cycle? Other?
    • Are there similar courses that could be grouped together?
    • Which semester will you begin assessing this course?
    • If you make changes, when will you reassess to see the effects?
  • Will you assess all students and sections or will you use sampling?
    • If you are sampling, how many students/sections will be involved?
    • How will you decide which students/sections to involve?
  • What do you need to do to prepare?
    • Do you need to set up meetings for faculty teaching the course?
    • Do you need to create a departmental test or rubric?
    • How will you distribute materials?
    • Do you need any additional resources or training?
Finally, think about how and when you will share the assessment results and use the results in decision-making about the course and/or program (“closing the loop”):
  • What needs to be done to gather and present the data?
    • Do you need data from Institutional Research?
    • What format will you use to share the data? PowerPoint? Handouts? Other?
  • When will be a meaningful time for your department to reflect on the results?
    • Department retreats?
    • Department meetings?
    • Other?